One killed in Florida by tornado spurred by Tropical Storm Debby

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Tropical Storm Debby (CNN)

MIAMI — The outer bands of Tropical Storm Debby lashed Florida on Sunday, spawning two apparent tornadoes in the central part of the state that killed one woman, a county spokeswoman said.

Gloria Rybinski, emergency operations spokeswoman for Highland County, said the twisters destroyed four homes in the southern end of the county and damaged others.

The woman was found dead in a home in Venus, located in the middle of the state roughly between Port St. Lucie and Sarasota, Rybinski said. In addition, a child in one of the affected homes was injured and transported to a hospital for treatment.

The slowly moving center of Debby remains in the Gulf of Mexico, though it’s already pounding the region with torrential rain in addition to the perilous winds.

“The rain was coming down sideways and the winds were between 40 to 50 miles per hour,” said CNN ireporter Keri Ann Eversole from Redington Beach, about 10 miles east of St. Petersburg. “The rain felt like glass.”

Fire and rescue personnel in nearby Clearwater responded to 30 calls in an hour, as of 6 p.m. Sunday, to help people stranded in their cars due to the flooding or needing urgent medical help, the city’s public safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said. Beach areas were “basically underwater,” as were many side streets and at least two major thoroughfares — U.S. Highway 19 and Gulf to Bay Boulevard.

And high winds have prompted authorities to shut down the Sunshine Skyway bridge on Interstate 275 connecting St. Petersburg and Bradenton, Florida, said Elizabeth LaRotonda with St. Petersburg police.

A large swath of Florida was under a tornado watch and a flood watch Sunday afternoon, as forecasters warned of heavy rainfall. Several tornado warnings were issued, with twisters possible through Sunday night over west and central Florida.

Louisiana’s governor declared a state of emergency Sunday, but the National Hurricane Center on Sunday afternoon canceled a tropical storm warning from the mouth of the Pearl River westward to Morgan City, Louisiana.

A tropical storm warning — meaning sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph are expected within 36 hours — is in effect from the Mississippi-Alabama border eastward to the Suwannee River, Florida. And a tropical storm watch was extended southward from the Suwannee River to Englewood, Florida.

At 4 p.m. (5 p.m. ET), the center of Debby was located about 205 miles east-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and about 100 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, Florida. Packing 60-mph winds with higher gusts, it was moving northeast at about 3 mph. Some slight strengthening was forecast over the next 48 hours, forecasters said.

The new forecast track showed Debby remaining a tropical storm as it moves northward and makes landfall, possibly Thursday, on the Florida Panhandle. However, forecasters warned Debby’s track remained uncertain and said the “new official track remains a low-confidence forecast.”

Computer models suggest the storm may strike directly anywhere from the upper Texas coast to the Florida Panhandle, said Dave Hennen, CNN senior meteorologist.

Yet even though its eye may not head over land for days, the storm is already making an impact. The Miami-based hurricane center reported late Sunday afternoon that “tropical storm conditions are already near or over portions of the northeast Gulf Coast and are expected to reach the remainder of the warning area by tonight.”

It described Debby as a “sprawling system,” with tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph stretching some 200 miles from the storm’s center.

Earlier Sunday, sustained winds of 37 mph with gusts to 43 mph were reported at Bald Point, Florida, about 45 miles south of Tallahassee, the hurricane center said.

The combination of a storm surge and the tide could cause 4 to 6 feet of flooding at Florida’s Apalachee Bay, forecasters said. Florida’s west coast, south of Apalachee Bay, and coastal Mississippi eastward to Apalachee Bay could see 2 to 4 feet of flooding, while southeastern Louisiana could see 1 to 3 feet.

Debby is expected to dump 5 to 10 inches of rain over much of the Florida Panhandle, northern and central Florida and southeastern Georgia, with isolated amounts of 15 to 20 inches possible in some areas, the hurricane center said.

“Given the recent heavy rainfall and wet soil conditions, these additional amounts will exacerbate the threat of flooding across portions of northern Florida and southern Alabama,” forecasters said.

Alabama, Mississippi, southeastern Louisiana and southern Florida were forecast to receive 2 to 4 inches of rain, with up to 6 inches possible in some areas.

Because of the storm’s uncertain track, some Louisiana officials weren’t taking any chances.

In Plaquemines Parish, the state’s southernmost parish, authorities were using baskets and tubes to keep Highway 23 — the parish’s main evacuation and emergency route — free of water should the 4-foot levees be topped, said Billy Nungesser, parish president.

“We want to be ahead of that as a precautionary measure,” Nungesser said. The area is forecast to get a storm surge of 2 to 4 feet, he said — “with a direct hit, if it goes up a little bit more, we’ll have those levees topped.”

Officials were also sandbagging the levees as an additional precaution, he said.

In St. Mary Parish along the central Louisiana coast, officials were in “watch and wait” mode, according to Duval Arthur, the parish’s emergency preparedness director.

“The way this storm is moving, so slow, it’s really kind of hard to make any plans, to start any plans … it’s changed on us actually three times,” he said.

Officials are planning to issue street-flooding warnings in recreational areas located on the water, he said. “As this storm gets closer, we’re going to have 3-to-4-foot higher than normal tides.”

Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish and Lafourche Parish also issued precautionary states of emergency Sunday.

BP spokesman Brett Clanton said early Sunday evening that “we’ve evacuated the majority of our offshore personnel in the Gulf of Mexico” due to Tropical Storm Debby. “Those unable to be evacuated will shelter in place for the storm,” he said

There are a total of 596 manned oil and gas production platforms throughout the Gulf, run by various companies. One of them, Shell, said in a statement Sunday morning that it had evacuated 360 staff the previous day and was planning further evacuations.

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Credit: CNN. CNN’s Jake Carpenter, Ashley Hayes, Jareen Imam, Marlena Baldacci and Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.